Comic Studies: Documentary Comics

The University of Dundee in Scotland recently launched the world's first mainstream postgraduate degree course (an MLitt) in Comic Studies. In this weekly column, I cover the course from a student's perspective, looking at and discussing what the term "Comic Studies" really entails.

Having had a good look at some of the most famous autobiographical and biographical comics in previous weeks, from "Maus" and "Persepolis" to "American Splendor" and "Fun Home," this week we turn our attention to the other kind of comic that this first module is focusing on: documentary comics.

Documentary comics are the fusion of journalism and biography, filtered through the medium of sequential art. Notable examples are Joe Sacco's "Palestine" and "Safe Area Goražde," and Sacco is perhaps the seminal artist of this genre. We've spoken before about the theory of "amplification through simplification" as described by comics theorist Scott McCloud. This is the idea that comics are uniquely placed to convey quite complex information in a deceptively simple style, and that the more abstract or iconic the art is, the easier this transfer of information is. The simple style of comics also makes them easier to identify with regardless of your background -- pretty much everyone knows how to read a comic!

"Persepolis" told us about the Islamic Revolution, the history of Iran, and the struggles of women and the veil, all in a far more accessible style (albeit a more narrow focus) than a weighty factual book could manage. XKCD is another great example of a simple style comic being used to communicate more subtle messages.

Political cartoons and caricatures have been around for decades, ably suggesting complicated political ideas and theories in a manner that is easily digestible for all readers (and remember, this is where the initial condescension of comics started, when the rich were nervous about art no longer being special and unique, when even the poor could see satirical cartoons!). It's perhaps surprising, then, that comics journalism took a while to become so prominent. The main difference, of course, between a cartoon that appears in a newspaper compared to an entire comic is that of immediacy -- the one-off political cartoon can be created in a matter of hours, while the latter is the product of years of work. The challenge for comics journalism is to maintain that sense of immediacy while having something relevant to say about the present day world, particularly in a world where information is now so immediately available. But unlike the one off political cartoon, the full comic can illustrate a situation far more broadly.

And it's here, I should point out, that reader subjectivity really comes into play! "Palestine" and "Safe Area Goražde" were our designated titles for the week, and it seemed like my own reactions to the two books were quite different from everyone else. I had tremendous problems with the first title and absolutely loved the second -- almost the opposite of everyone else!

However, subjectivity is an intrinsic part of New Journalism, the school of journalism that Sacco subscribes to. New Journalism is basically that which favors the subjective eye over the more traditional objective approach; New Journalism doesn't simply report the facts, it borrows heavily from fictional literature in its techniques, allows for the authors opinion and presence and employs a very intensive reporting method known as "saturation reporting." Famous New Journalists include Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson, the latter being one of the most well known journalists of the last century thanks to his bestselling "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

Hunter S. Thompson pushed it further than most with his Gonzo Journalism, a stream of consciousness reporting style that he would submit at the last possible moment to prevent his work from being edited. Comic fans are familiar with that style from "Transmetropolitan's" Spider Jerusalem, a master of the genre even if he does happen to be fictional! I find it surprising that the underground news sites Warren Ellis created in Spider's world haven't yet leaked across to ours, but perhaps it is only a matter of time.

"Palestine" is no objective look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor does it pretend to be. Sacco felt the US media had seriously misrepresented the situation the book covers, and that he had grown up wrongly thinking that all Palestinians were terrorists. Struggling between his twin desires of being a cartoonist and being a hard news reporter, he decided that he wanted to give Palestine a voice so that outsiders would see them as more than the terrorists and victims they were portrayed as.

Sacco immersed himself in the experience and stayed in Palestine for two months, meeting residents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip while documenting what he saw and heard. He appears as a character within the book, and many of the interviews he conducted are represented as conversations on the page. Sacco's character is a caricaturized version of himself, and often his interjections are not terribly welcome.

The photos Sacco took at the time have transformed into the illustrations throughout the book, giving "Palestine" a unique style: panels slide across the page and crash into each other, narration is wedged within gutters of bizarre shapes and sizes, speech bubbles and text boxes explode from the panels, and the narration is constant at all times, sometimes overwhelmingly so. The style does, I think, fit the situation that the book is representing: chaotic and unsafe circumstances where everything is rushed and confused -- particularly for an outsider.

Sacco does step aside from time to time to devote pages to another's narration, for a Palestinian to tell their story unhindered. But not often enough. The author is honest throughout about being a clueless Westerner, but there is an unshakeable sense that this is some form of gross tourism when Sacco gleefully finds "action" that will make his comic book that much more exciting. His greed over provided food while his Palestinian hosts hold back from eating is stomach-churning, and while it does underscore his own honesty, it also detracts from the story of the Palestinians themselves!

For someone so familiar with the work of Edward Said (Sacco is even seen reading "Orientalism" within the comic pages), it's odd that the Palestinians are often not given much individual character beyond their traumas. Perhaps Sacco is intentionally setting himself up as the "other" in this way, but I was left feeling that I had read more about the journalist than I would like, and less about the actual people living in the occupied territories.

One thing I did notice is just how male heavy the book is; women are often seen in the background, bringing food or tea, or hidden behind curtains. When I brought this up in class, it was pointed out that this is perhaps a cultural issue, but I believe that that is a bit of a convenient excuse. There are certainly women organizations in Palestine, as well as women comic groups, women writers groups and many career women. Additionally, over half the students at university in the West Bank are Palestinian women.

Outside of the more easily accessible educated set, there have been a handful of successful academic studies focusing on Palestinian women in the patriarchal camps and villages. Successful in that the studies accurately represent the opinions of the women via interviews, but not terribly successful in terms of getting the stories out there: something that "Palestine" was in a prime position to achieve. A couple of times it looked like we'd get to see the stories of the women there, but the narrative invariably swung back to male perspectives again.

Reading "Palestine" so soon after I read Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis." the difference seemed particularly stark.

And maybe that was really my main issue with "Palestine" as a whole -- as much as I value New Journalism and applaud Joe Sacco for bringing the Palestinian story into the spotlight, I can't help but feel I would have rather have read this story from the Palestinians themselves, both male and female. By interjecting himself so blatantly into the book, and by frequently making reference to what would look "good" in a comic book, he actually detracts from his own message. An argument in the class was that Sacco was very brave to do what he did, and while I agree I think that somewhat diminishes what those who live there all the time have to face!

What I do agree with though was that the success of "Palestine" opened up a new genre for comic books, allowing other people to push comics further than they had gone before. And one of those people was Joe Sacco himself!

After my somewhat mixed experience with "Palestine," I was somewhat reluctant to crack open "Safe Area Goražde," but I needn't have feared -- these are two very different books, indeed. While Sacco confessed to holding back the more terrible stories in "Palestine" to make the book more palatable for a US audience, "Safe Area Goražde" suffered from no such omissions.

"Safe Area Goražde" documents the frequent trips that Sacco made to the town of Goražde in Bosnia towards the end of the Bosnian War. In some ways, this is safer territory to tread. The situation with Israel and Palestine is a hotbed of arguments and opinion in the political and media spheres, while the atrocities in Bosnia are quite consistently condemned.

Sacco appears throughout this title, as he did in "Palestine," but he is much further into the background and frequently gives up pages to various people in Goražde to tell their stories. "Safe Area Goražde" is a far darker book, and Sacco has lost the experimental style that made "Palestine" quite visually interesting if not a little distracting. Here we have more conventional panels, narration in it's more conventional place, and even a sense of overarching narrative with the book beginning and ending in the same place.

This time, Sacco revisits the same people over a period of time, building up their stories, their characters and their experiences. The people stand out as individuals, and it is frequently shocking to remember that these are real people and that these events actually happened.

The horrific stories are interspersed with (drawn) maps and media footage from the United States and elsewhere; the callousness of the international community jars terribly with the terrifying situation in the town. This to me, felt like truth. There was no covering up the worse bits or deflecting to the authors humour to lighten the moment (though humour is present from the Goražde residents!). Perhaps it's the Spider Jerusalem fangirl in me, but this is what comics journalism should be about: getting the truth, no matter how terrible, out into the world.

And comics, being so universal, are uniquely placed!

Most shocking of all is how quickly the situation happened in Bosnia. Neighbors one week, murderers and corpses the next. In a society where Islamophobia continues to grow, it's a terrible and timely reminder of the slippery slope that starts with wanting Muslims out of "your" country.

Sacco birthed the genre, and subsequent creators have varied in efficacy, and I get the feeling that this is an avenue not yet fully realized.

Next week: Issues of Gender and the controversial Crumbs!

Laura Sneddon is a freelance comics journalist in the UK, writing for mainstream press and websites alike. You can follow her on Twitter and read most of her work at www.comicbookgrrrl.com. In her working hours she sells comics to an unsuspecting public and formulates her plan to become an evil professor of comics.

Bryan Hitch Drops Sneak Peek of His and Warren Ellis’ Batman’s Grave

More in Comics